Monday, April 26, 2010

The night my father sent his son to rescue me

Nearly 40 years have passed but I remember that night in July as though it was yesterday. It was the night our car broke down on the highway near Greenville, Alabama.
I was 40 years old at the time, the father of five sons but still young enough to call my own father to bail me out of a problem. Though my father never graduated from high school he was one of the smartest men I have ever known. I grew up knowing that I could count on him in a crisis. He was strong and steady.
Daddy was a “Jack of all trades.” He had worked as a plumber’s assistant and along the way picked up basic skills in carpentry. He became a decent mechanic by maintaining his own farming equipment. He used what he had and found ingenious ways to fix things that were broken.
Dean and I married when we were 20. I was wet behind the ears with little experience in dealing with the unexpected. When there was a problem I was not ashamed to call Daddy for advice. He would know what to do when no one else did.
Calling on Daddy for advice gradually began to bother me. I thought it made me seem inadequate in my wife’s eyes. I wanted her to think that I could handle anything. Her father died when she was very young. She had not grown up depending on her dad as I had mine. I sensed that she wanted me to “grow up,” be a man, take charge, and stop calling my dad about every crisis.
I wanted that identity for myself too. I wanted my sons to think of me as I thought of my dad – a strong man who could fix anything. Gradually I began breaking the habit of calling Daddy for counsel. I felt like a real man at last.
So on that July night when our car broke down I was determined to fix the problem myself. We were returning to Mobile from a family vacation in Minnesota. With the help of a kind man who stopped to help us we pushed the car into a gas station just off the interstate.
I soon discovered that since it was Saturday no car repair center was open. No one knew of a mechanic who would be available until Monday. But I was desperate. I had to preach the next morning in my church. My family was dog tired.
I kept trying to locate a mechanic but searched in vain. And I did not have a clue what to do. I was exhausted. My wife was frustrated. Our sons were simply being little boys – and driving us crazy. My whole family was beginning to doubt my manhood. I could hear their silent demand: “You are the daddy. You are in charge. Why don’t you figure out what to do?”
Finally I thought about my favorite solution --call my daddy. But I was too proud to do that. After all, what could he do that I could not do? And I could hear my wife saying with a smirk, “So you called your Daddy did you? That is all you know how to do – call your Daddy!” I did not want to hear that so in desperation I went back to the drawing board. Still no answer came to mind.
Finally I caved in and called Daddy. Why not? He always knew what to do. By then I had learned that my car needed a new starter. Resourceful as ever, Daddy called a friend who ran an auto parts store. Though his store had been closed since noon, he agreed to meet Daddy at the store and sell him the starter. My brother Seth would be driving down to bring me the starter.
It was ten o’clock and help was on the way. My brother, sixty miles away, would arrive shortly after eleven o’clock. In the meantime fortune had smiled on me again; a local mechanic, home from an afternoon of fishing, had agreed to come to the service station and install the starter.
Once Seth arrived, the grumbling mechanic quickly replaced the starter. It was after midnight but we were on the road again. Yet before I had driven five miles suddenly I had to pull off the highway and stop the car. I was blinded by the tears that filled my eyes.
What triggered my crying was the sudden realization that this little Saturday night crisis was the gospel – fleshed out in this strange breakdown of our car. It was simple yet profound – I had called my father and he had sent his son to rescue us.
That is the essence of salvation – when our problems overwhelm us, we can call our heavenly Father and he will send His Son to save us. I could not imagine a more beautiful illustration of the gospel message. It is the message around which my whole life has been focused.
I sat on the side of the road for awhile regaining my composure. The boys were asleep, completely unaware of the exhilaration within my heart. My wife, half asleep, said, “What is wrong; why did you stop?” I told her I would explain later and urged her to go back to sleep. When my tears subsided I drove home, my weariness replaced by a joyous sense of the presence of God.
The next morning I told this story to my congregation and God blessed the telling of it. I reckon you can understand why I will never forget the night my father send his son to rescue me, and why I keep telling this story to anyone who will listen. @

Saturday, April 17, 2010

April 18, 2010

Today has been a special day to us for 57 years

April 18 has come again. It is not a holiday. It is not the birthday of a president or a Civil War general. For most people it is just another day on the calendar. But for me and my bride it has been a special day for 57 years. Our first son was born on this day in 1953.
Today being Sunday we will worship as usual where I preach every Lord’s Day, Saint James United Methodist Church in Montgomery. My sermon today will be about lessons we learned through the death of our son. Old folks simply have to reminisce. And we never cease to be thankful for those who will listen for a little while.
Many Lee County residents will remember April 18, 1953 for a different reason. A vicious tornado ripped through east Alabama that day, destroying several homes and damaging many others.
Dean and I began married life in an upstairs apartment on College Street across from Auburn United Methodist Church. But Dean was soon pregnant. After she fell down the stairs leading to our apartment we rented a house at 818 Lakeview Drive in Auburn. The rent was a whopping $75 per month. I was in my third year at API, the land-grant college would soon become known as Auburn University.
Early in the morning of April 18 we hurried off to the small hospital that is now called East Alabama Medical Center. Dean’s sharp and increasingly rapid labor pains convinced her that today she would deliver her firstborn.
Dark clouds and the forecast of bad weather made us a little uneasy. But it was the turbulence of childbirth, not the weather that got our attention that day.
The raging storm forced the hospital to switch to emergency power when nearby power lines went down. Rain was hitting the windows in torrents. Water even poured into the hospital through the air-conditioning ducts. But several hours would pass before we heard that a tornado had ripped through the community.
Our kind physician, Dr. Ben Thomas, had to drive through a torrential rain from Auburn get to the hospital. Shortly after his arrival, debris from the storm made driving in the area quite hazardous.
When I returned home that night, elated by the safe delivery of our first son, I found our house had been damaged by the storm. The roof had been ripped off above the front door, allowing the rain to soak some of our furniture. But the damage seemed incidental compared to the total destruction of several nearby homes.
Weighing nine pounds and two ounces, our baby boy was beautiful and healthy. His blond hair and blue eyes made him even more special to us. We were thrilled to have started our family. Though we had little money, we enjoyed life. The future was bright. We had the world by the tail. I finished Auburn and we moved to Nashville where I enrolled in seminary at Vanderbilt University.
But soon another storm descended upon us just as swiftly as the tornado had come. Tests brought bad news. Our doctor’s voice was breaking as he fought back tears and gave us the dreadful news, “Your son has leukemia.”
He explained that there was no known cure. The best he could do would be to keep David comfortable until he died. “Perhaps,” he said, “a cure will be discovered soon; a lot of research is being done.”
I asked how long David might live. His answer sent a chill up and down my spine. “My best guess is somewhere between two months and two years,” he said. It was the worst moment of my life – hearing that death sentence for our precious little boy. David was two years old, five months into his third year.
That diagnosis shattered our world on a day in September. David suffered. We struggled with the burden. We prayed. We cried. We stifled our anger and wrestled with our fear. Underneath all our frustration was the maddening question: Why would a loving God let a beautiful little boy die like this?
Finally David’s suffering came to an end on a day in May the next year. His death wounded us but it did not destroy us. Though tested sorely by the loss of our only child, our marriage lasted and became stronger. God met us in the hallways of hell and showed us the way out. We refused to become bitter and asked God to make us better. We tried to let him use our pain.
Over these 57 years our sadness has given way to the overwhelming joy that is God’s gift to those who keep on holding his hand through tough times.
And each time April 18 rolls around, we pause to give thanks for the privilege of having David for three short years. We also give thanks that in his kindness, God gave us four other sons, each of whom is very precious to us in these days.
This time, the 57th celebration of David’s birth, we offer thanks that we are still together, still able to remember his beautiful smile, and still thankful for the joy that was ours on the turbulent day our first child was born.
I hope you understand why the 18th day of April remains a very special day to us. It will always be so, as long as we live. @